Allison Dembeck Allison Dembeck
Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

July 20, 2022

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.

Each month we highlight a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community.  In July, we are highlighting Ashli Watts, the President, and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.  In this role, Ashli leads all activities coming out of the Kentucky Chamber that work to support a prosperous business climate in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and advance Kentucky through advocacy, information, program management, and customer service.  Read more about Ashli in her own words below.

The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell us about the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and the decision to get involved in the National Civics Bee.

The KY Chamber, through our Foundation, a 501c3, was proud to partner with the US Chamber Foundation on the Inaugural Kentucky Civics Bee and with its success, are excited to continue the program. With the world seeming increasingly divided, it is more important than ever to instill the knowledge of civics education and a fundamental understanding of democracy and free enterprise in young Americans. Our inaugural event was a huge success with hundreds of students across the Commonwealth submitting essays on a civics topic in which they felt passionate. We held an in-person event with business leaders and policymakers at our headquarters with the top ten finalists where they competed in a “Jeopardy” style competition quizzing their knowledge on civics and the American government. After a close competition, a young man from rural Kentucky won the inaugural Civics Bee. And in true Kentucky fashion, when asked what he would do with his $1,000 cash reward, he said he was going to buy more sheep for his family's sheep farm! He is a sheep farmer, very involved in the agriculture community, and was excited to help his family in this way. 

What type of work does the Kentucky Chamber do to help with increased civic engagement, bridge building, and bipartisanship?

I often refer to the Chamber and the overall business community as the “adult in the room” in terms of policy, politics, and the ever-growing political divide. The Chamber is a historically non-partisan organization and I am proud that everything we do is membership-based and rooted in what is good for business, not what is good for one party or another. Chambers of commerce are, at their core, conveners, and I think it’s very important we use this platform to bring groups and organizations together to work on issues and move our communities, states, and nation forward. 

Kentucky currently has a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor, so it is important businesses have a seat at the table with both the legislative and executive branches of government. Focusing on pro-growth policies that will make Kentucky more competitive and help the job creators of the Commonwealth is key as we navigate these relationships.

Tell us about your role at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and what interested you in the National Civics Bee?

I have been at the Kentucky Chamber for almost 10 years, serving as the President and CEO for almost 3 years, and prior to that as the Senior Vice President of Public Affairs. Growing up, I was always interested in government, politics, and public service, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree in Political Science. I know I am not the only one who has grown frustrated with the divisive and angry tone surrounding politics and government, which has increasingly heightened in recent years. As a student of government and civics, I am hopeful the Civics Bee will contribute to changing the narrative we constantly see in the news. By emphasizing the importance of civics education, the goal is that the next generation understands the democratic system in which free enterprise helps people achieve the American dream and though we can have civil disagreements, we work together for a more perfect union.  

What challenges do you see with increasing excitement and interest in civic engagement?

The biggest challenge I see is simply the partisan divide that has rapidly increased in recent years. I am often discouraged when I see the polarization of our nation and that having civil disagreements is becoming a thing of the past. With constant news cycles and the two major political parties becoming more divided than ever, it is critical we try to reverse this trend. I feel chambers of commerce, which are trusted, non-partisan and have strong, respected leaders, are the perfect organizations to try to bridge this gap.

Are there particular challenges that women face when it comes to civic engagement, bridge building, and bipartisanship?

I actually think that women are the perfect leaders when it comes to civic engagement, bridge building, and bipartisanship because (of course I am biased!) women naturally bring people together. Women listen, care, foster, and nurture relationships, which I believe are all qualities that will help bring people together that may currently be at odds over issues or political beliefs. Building relationships, understanding other opinions and values, and seeking common ground are key to overcoming the divide we currently see across our nation. And I think women will be the people to accomplish this.

Is there a single piece of advice that resonated with you throughout your career?

I just recently heard this but it was an “ah-ha” moment for me. A female board member of the Chamber and a president of a large bank told the audience at a recent Kentucky Chamber Women’s Summit that women in leadership should work at being outstanding and not at standing out. Meaning if you are outstanding in what you do, you will inevitably stand out. But you can easily stand out and not be outstanding-which defeats the purpose.

What book do you think every leader needs to read? 

Good to Great by Jim Collins. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it or reference it in some way! 

What is your biggest inspiration?

Easy-my children.

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, is there one or two – work/leadership-related or not – you would recommend?

I listen to a lot of podcasts! Not only do I travel alone quite a bit and need something to pass the time, but I also try to walk at least 2-3 miles a day and listen to podcasts while I do this. I started this evening routine in 2020 and it is my way to decompress after the day and just simply relax. That being said, I mostly listen to true-crime podcasts-so definitely not work-related! My rationalization is that I deal with heavy policy and political issues all day and it’s nice to just shut my brain off a bit!

About the authors

Allison Dembeck

Allison Dembeck

Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.

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